Bluegrass Raleigh

Backstage at the IBMA Awards, an atmosphere of family and fun

Backstage jam with the Del McCoury and his band

Bluegrass star Del McCoury and his band run through a number in their dressing room backstage just before being called on stage at the IBMA Awards show in Raleigh, N.C..
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Bluegrass star Del McCoury and his band run through a number in their dressing room backstage just before being called on stage at the IBMA Awards show in Raleigh, N.C..

Becky Buller had already won an IBMA Award on Thursday night when she heard her name called a second time, for female vocalist of the year. Standing in the backstage wings of Memorial Auditorium, she shouted, thrust her fists in the air and began running through the dark toward the podium as fast as her four-inch high heels would take her …

Until she reached the edge of the curtain, where Buller abruptly slowed to the pace of a dignified stroll as she came into the audience’s view.

You get an interesting view of the International Bluegrass Music Awards from behind the curtain. Out front, 16 awards and two Hall of Fame plaques were handed out at a leisurely pace on Thursday night. But making that happen took a massive amount of work by a cast of dozens, overseen by show producer Amy Reitnouer.

A 2009 graduate of Elon University, Reitnouer is executive editor of California-based Bluegrass Situation, which also produces live events. Between that and Reitnouer’s previous experience working for the Academy of Motion Pictures (which puts on the annual Oscars telecast), she pretty much has the perfect skill set for running the IBMA Awards.

There’s a certain kitten-herding aspect to putting on any awards show with live entertainment, even if it doesn’t involve television (the only broadcast of the IBMA Awards was on Sirius XM satellite radio). But the backstage scene at the IBMA Awards is relatively relaxed, as these things go, with very little drama.

It’s not that crazy. Except for the occasional moment of, ‘Oh my God, where is he?!’

Amy Reitnouer, producer of the International Bluegrass Music Awards

“The surprising and lovely thing about IBMA is it’s a beautiful professional production everyone treats with the same reverence they would the Academy Awards,” Reitnouer said. “It’s a big night for bluegrass, but it’s a much more familial, fun atmosphere back there than people expect. These are artists I share a lot of history with. So it’s not that crazy. Except for the occasional moment of, ‘Oh my God, where is he?!’”

Bluegrass star Del McCoury and his band run through a number in their dressing room backstage just before being called on stage at the IBMA Awards show in Raleigh, N.C..

Much preparation

Preparations for this year’s IBMA Awards began six months ago, capped by Wednesday night’s onstage run-through of the script with co-hosts Sierra Hull and Dan Tyminski. Even at that late hour, less than 24 hours until showtime, they were still tweaking the script the co-hosts would read on the teleprompter, along with scores of light, audio and video cues.

Rehearsals continued during the day Thursday, show day, with everything more or less nailed down by about 6 p.m. – one hour before doors opened. Artists were showing up by then, sharply dressed and walking the red carpet out front. Del McCoury, looking regal as always with the most immaculately coiffed hair in bluegrass, left not a single hand unshook as he made his way backstage.

Presenters and performers streamed in a few at a time – Buller, McCoury, Flatt Lonesome, two members of Steep Canyon Rangers – some sitting a spell in the makeup room before mingling with their peers or tuning up in their dressing rooms. Assistants in headsets bustled about, briefing everyone on their cues and setting up a photo area for IBMA photographers to take pictures of the winners with their trophies.

Tyminski, the singing voice of George Clooney in the Coen Brothers movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and a fellow given to cutups and wisecracks, sidled around fanning himself.

“You’re not gonna show your nipples out there tonight, are ya, Dan?” asked teleprompter operator Jill Crabtree, and Tyminski mockingly gave a start.

“Nobody said I couldn’t,” he protested.

Staying secret

Shortly before doors opened, the sound engineers were doing a final check on all the onstage microphones. And Mary Burdette, assistant director of the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival in New York, was getting the actual awards ready in the stage-right command center.

Burette and Lisa Husted lined up each of the awards on a table in order of presentation, from instrumental recorded performance to entertainer of the year, while keeping them in their boxes. The awards were already stamped with the winners’ names, so each one had to stay in its box to remain secret. Co-host Hull, who would win mandolin player of the year for the first time, had no idea she’d be winning an award.

Out front, presenters would hand each winner the same generic blank award at the podium. Then they’d trade that in for the real thing immediately after leaving the stage and go pose for pictures and interviews.

“OK, you just step out a little bit and hand the presenters the award,” Reitnouer told Burdette, who winced a bit.

“I would have worn something different if I’d known,” Burdette said, and they both laughed. Reitnouer wound up enlisting someone else to be the award-runner.

By 7:15, enough of the audience was in the hall for things to begin. Offstage announcer Ned Luberecki briefly coached the crowd to applaud at various levels of volume and enthusiasm for the engineers to record for use during the broadcast – which began with Tyminski and his Soggy Bottom Boys onstage to do their big “O Brother” hit “Man of Constant Sorrow” right after Luberecki counted down.

“Please take your seats, folks, we’re about ready to start in … five … four … three … two … one … And we are live at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards from Raleigh, North Carolina!”

Catching up

Watching from behind the curtain, you don’t see or hear much of the actual show. It can also get surprisingly noisy in back with conversations going on, sometimes loud enough that it was surprising no one out front could hear them.

But none of it seemed to distract the audience, and everybody had lots of catching up to do. Acts of this caliber essentially live on the road, and this is one of the few events that brings them together.

Everybody had lots of catching up to do. Acts of this caliber essentially live on the road, and this is one of the few events that brings them together.

Alison Krauss, who was there as a presenter, arrived and exchanged hugs with a lot of her old Union Station bandmates, including Tyminski and Earls of Leicester bassist Barry Bales. And Reitnouer had a quick hug and a chat with Steep Canyon Rangers mandolinist Mike Guggino, an old friend going back to the days when the Rangers were starting out playing around Chapel Hill.

By the time the two Hall of Fame presentations were done (to the late guitarist Clarence White, and to the label Rounder Records), Reitnouer was relaxing just a bit.

“This is the point when I finally take a breath and start to calm down,” Reitnouer said, watching Hull onstage playing “Black River.” “It’s like the 7th inning stretch. Almost done.”

Earls of Leicester won the show-closing entertainer of the year award for the second straight year. But Thursday’s big winner was the young band Flatt Lonesome.

Vocal group of the year was the first of three IBMA Awards that Flatt Lonesome would win on the night, and they were exchanging hugs and handshakes on their way to the photo area afterward.

Claire Lynch, a frequent past IBMA winner who had presented Flatt Lonesome with that one, called out from behind them.

“Hold up, you Flatt Lonesomes,” Lynch said, holding out the envelope containing their name. “You might want this to frame.”

Mandolin player Sierra Hull talks about her IBMA mandolin player of the year award from her dressing room backstage at the IBMA Awards. Hull co-hosted the event.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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